Winter solstice is 21 December, the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun is lowest in the sky. The Irish for winter solstice, an grianstad, literally translates as ‘the sun stop’. In secondary school we visited the Newgrange monument, the 5,200-year-old Neolithic passage tomb in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath. It’s surrounded by 97 large kerbstones, some engraved with swirling megalithic art. At sunrise, on this shortest day, direct sunlight creeps through the roof box and illuminates the chamber. It really is phenomenal and incredible that they were able to create such an accurate astronomical feature in those times.
A few short days after the winter solstice, our world is lit with twinkling lights as Christmas falls on 25 December. Christmas is the highlight of winter in our home. I’ve always loved this time of year, even before we had our children and got to experience it through their eyes. My eldest was born the night I hauled a Christmas tree from the boot of my Jeep. He’s been a festive baby ever since, and we always have the tree up for his birthday at the start of December. This gingerbread nativity is another tradition we still do. I first made one over a decade ago and now I bake one each year. Some are gaudy and bright, others simpler and more modern. Decorate it however you like; it’s simpler than a full-blown gingerbread house and a lovely way to mark the occasion, with a sweet baby Jesus taking centre stage.
For the dough:
- 170g butter, soft
- 250g light brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 340g molasses, or alternatively agave syrup, honey or treacle
- 650g plain flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 2 tbsp ground ginger
- 2 tbsp mixed spice
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp salt
- Greaseproof paper, pencil and scissors for making the templates
- Sharp knife
For assembling and decorating:
- Makes enough dough for 1 stable, 1 crib, 3 characters and up to 20 tree decorations depending on size
- 350g instant royal icing powder
- Sweets such as gum drops, jelly beans, peppermint candy canes, dragées and marshmallows
- Edible cake decorations like chocolate vermicelli or sprinkles
- Granulated sugar for decorating the snow
- A large cake board or similar
- Piping bag fitted with a small plain nozzle
- Small bowls or teacups for mixing small quantities of icing
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Pour in the molasses and mix well.
- Sieve the flour, baking powder, spices and salt into a separate bowl. Add half the sieved flour mixture to the molasses mixture. Once combined, add the remaining flour and mix until it becomes a smooth dough. Halve the dough and flatten into two discs. Wrap with cling film and place in the fridge to firm up for an hour or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Prepare the templates by tracing the characters and stable pieces onto greaseproof paper and then cutting around them. Or use ready-made biscuit cutters.
- Roll out half the dough between two large baking tray-sized sheets of greaseproof paper, as it can be sticky to work with. Once flattened, place in the freezer, still on the sheet of greaseproof paper, for 10 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
- Place the templates on the cold dough and cut around them using a small, sharp knife. Remove all the excess dough. You can use the leftover dough to make extra biscuits. Carefully place the shaped dough on the paper, on a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 8–15 minutes depending on size. The gingerbread is cooked once it puffs up slightly and has darkened a little; don’t let it get too dark at the edges. Once baked, leave the gingerbread to cool for 10 minutes on the tray before transferring to a wire rack.
“You won’t find a pipe cleaner in this book! With a basic arsenal of sticky tape, paper, glue stick and twine you can create magic. Egg boxes, twigs and old clothes can all be transformed into hot water bottle covers, table centrepieces and scented diffusers. Creativity can often be a spur of the moment thing, you feel like making something or a window of time has suddenly opened up (the baby is sleeping or that zoom call is cancelled!) Having to run to the shop for special equipment can dampen the mood.
There are at least six projects for each month of the year that will give you ideas for celebrations, crafts, self care, activities to do with kids, ways to decorate your home and seasonal recipes, all of which are guided by the Irish calendar year, from St Brigid’s crosses in February to Yule Logs in December. These activities are about making the most of what we’ve got, providing inspiration for fun and creativity off screen, slowing down and making the everyday moments special. As we’ve all discovered it’s more important than ever to celebrate the small things.”
Gingerbread Nativity Scene Recipe – Lilly Higgins – The Homemade Year